Ballroom Dancing and Dancesport: Dancing or Sport?
Dancesport is another name for competitive ballroom dancing. To dancers from other genres, like me, it seems like a strange concept—after all, dance is a performing art, a form of self-expression and a means to entertain an audience. That doesn't seem to gel with the word "sport". However, ballroom dance has always had a different raison d'etre.
Ballet, jazz, and contemporary dance were invented to be performed on a stage. Even though flamenco evolved by the campfire, and hip hop on the street, they're also made to be performed: get a bunch of flamenco or hip hop dancers together, and they won't all dance at once—they'll take turns, individually or in small groups, to take centre stage and be admired by the other dancers. The same is true of belly dance.
By contrast, ballroom dancing, like all the partner dances, was invented to dance socially.
Get a group of ballroom dancers together, and they'll all take to the floor at the same time. There's an element of showing off, but essentially each couple is dancing together for their own satisfaction.
Early Ballroom Dance Was Different From Today's Standards
It's true that in the heyday of ballroom dance, people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed ballroom dances to an audience—but their style was closer to today's American Smooth, and the highlights are usually tap, not ballroom—as you can see in this clip.
While you're watching, also note Ginger's upright stance and remember it for later!
In recent years, Jason Gilkinson has had great success with his "ballroom" show Burn the Floor—but again, watch the whole show and you'll see that most of the choreography is a long way from standard ballroom or Latin dancing! Like the ballroom and Latin numbers on So You Think You Can Dance, many of the routines are heavily embroidered with high lifts, arabesques and other non-ballroom moves.
Ballroom Dancers Must Compete If They Are to Make It a Career
If ballet dancers, flamenco dancers and belly dancers want to make a living from dancing, they seek careers performing in dance companies, musicals, on TV or in cabaret. Unfortunately, as we've seen, ballroom dancers don't have as many options. Perhaps that's why adult competition, rare in other genres, developed as the main way of earning a living for ballroom dancers. And from making it a competition, it's only a small step to making it a sport.
I'm sure some would argue that a dance competition is a form of performance, but it's not quite the same. In other dance styles, professional dancers achieve success by entertaining the audience—whereas a professional ballroom dancer achieves success by pleasing the judges. In that regard, ballroom dancing is closer to ice skating than to other genres of dance—it even uses a similar scoring system.
Different Aims, Different Outcomes
Given the difference in objectives, it doesn't surprise me that ballroom dance seems to be evolving very differently from other dance genres.
One of the big problems about judging an art form is that artistic merit is subjective. If you have a judging system that relies on the opinion of a judge, it will always be open to accusations of favoritism, no matter how respected the judge. So, like skating, ballroom dance judging systems have developed which have a heavy bias towards technical skills.
Here's a quote from The A-Z of Scrutineering for Ballroom dancing by Estelle Grasby:
"Queries are ... made about the subjectivity of Dancesport. An element of subjectivity does exist, but this could also be said of a lot of other sports and any concentration on aesthetics is just another portrayal of the competitor's commitment. Competitors are judged on their skill, performance and technique and ranked against each other, rather than being awarded a mark based on artistic impression."
As a dancer used to the way other dance genres are critiqued, this method of assessment seems completely upside down, especially once dancers are past the student phase. I saw Margot Fonteyn dance in her fifties, when her technique was becoming questionable, and I was completely spellbound. That performance will always rate far higher in my eyes than one by a technically perfect but soulless ballerina.
I do understand why non-subjective judging criteria is necessary. Unfortunately dancing becomes all about what's perceived to please the judges - for instance, all ballroom dancers wear fake tan, blonds dye their hair and eyebrows brunette, and everyone pastes on fake expressions, especially a cheesy smile. You'll often hear the judges at So You Think You Can Dance auditions tell a ballroom dancer to "lose the ballroom face" because the expression on a dancer's face should come from the heart. If they can't do it, it can be enough to lose them a place in the show.
Rules can also lead to a reluctance to be innovative, since the fear is always that something which doesn't meet the criteria won't score well—which is what this wonderful Aussie movie "Strictly Ballroom" is all about!
Can Technique Go Too Far?
An emphasis on technique can also lead to exaggeration, as dancers try to do more of what the judges want. For instance, good hip action score points in Latin, so dancers try to move their hips more and more—until you get the absurd situation I saw at a Burn The Floor-type show recently, where the male dancers were violently gyrating and thrusting until I thought they'd put their backs out. It was painful to watch, and not in the slightest bit sexy!
In ballroom, the exaggeration is in the ladies' stance. Remember Ginger's relaxed, upright posture? Now look at the two videos below—one from the 1960s and the other from a 2009 event.
The 2009 dancers are certainly better athletes than the 1960's pair—we have the knowledge to approach fitness more scientifically today. But why, oh why, do the women have to dance leaning so far back, as if their partner has horrible bad breath?
Is Dancesport a dance genre or a sport?
To be fair, in all dance styles there's a risk of becoming too insular and not seeing the dance as others see it. For instance, flamenco dancers can get so focussed on brilliant footwork, they'll choreograph dance after dance full of nothing else—and they don't realize that ordinary audiences, after the first few "wow" minutes, are yawning with boredom. Mature belly dancers get so used to letting it all hang out in class, they forget how normal people might react when they perform in public. And I watched a contemporary routine last week where the dancers did nothing but throw themselves on the floor repeatedly, in different combinations of twos and threes, and stood up again. I'm sure other contemporary dancers would have admired their skill, but I kept waiting for them to start dancing.
I'm sorry if some ballroom dancers are offended by this article, but all I can say is—one, remember it's my personal opinion and two, see if you can find some non-ballroom friends to read it and give you their honest opinion. You may be surprised!